Approaching with folders and ring binders bulging from beneath his arm, it’s clear Neil Alexander takes his dual role at Hearts very seriously.
There is more than an hour until training begins but the player/ goalkeeping coach is already in full Adidas regalia when we meet at Riccarton’s reception area.
Today, like every day, Alexander plans out a training session for himself and deputies Jack Hamilton and Scott Gallacher. Tomorrow, he switches to playing mode when Hearts face Alloa Athletic. It is a fine balancing act but one the 36-year-old is relishing as he tries to forge a coaching career for himself.
In conversation, he is equally enthusiastic about Hearts’ 13-point lead atop the Scottish Championship as reaction drills and positional exercises. Coaching has given him fresh impetus and he fully intends to be planning out sessions upstairs at Riccarton for many years to come. That’s not to suggest Alexander is thinking of hanging up his gloves. Not in the slightest. Hearts’ defensive record this season proves he is still very much a goalkeeper in his prime. He is sensible enough, however, to acknowledge that his long-term future lies in coaching.
“This is one of the main reasons I came to Hearts, for the chance to coach,” he said. “I want to be a goalie coach when I retire from playing and Hearts gave me the opportunity to do that. I’d like to think I’ll be here long-term in that coaching role once I’ve finished playing. That was one of the appealing things about coming here. Hopefully I can have that job for a long time and that’s something I’m looking forward to. I’m enjoying playing but the coaching is a new step and, hopefully, the beginning of a long career.
“It’s difficult to mix the two. I need to look after myself and prepare for a Saturday because I’m playing, as well as looking after the other goalies. That’s the only thing I’ve found hard, balancing the two. I’m trying to put myself first but also look after the other two and get them prepared.”
Alexander plans to play the rest of this season and next before reviewing the playing side of his work. By then, his two-year Hearts contract will be up for renewal. “I’ve got two years as a player and a coach. We’ll assess the situation after that and see how my body is feeling but, at the minute, I’m feeling great and enjoying my football. I’m loving playing behind this team and seeing the football we’ve played this season. It’s been brilliant to be involved in.
“Winning and being on a good run at the top of the table does make it a nice working environment. It’s a pleasure to come and work here. I’ve learned so much from Robbie Neilson [head coach], Stevie Crawford [assistant], Jack Ross [under-20 coach] and Craig Levein [director of football]. It’s been a breath of fresh air for me and it’s given me a new lease of life at my age. The coaching side gives me another avenue and I hope it’s been enjoyable for the boys. This is my first half-season of it and I’m really enjoying it because I’m learning every day.
“Robbie has been a fantastic mentor and I like seeing what happens at the club. I like seeing the different side to football rather than just a player’s point of view. Being in the office day in and day out, you see how they build up from week to week and all the things that happen behind the scenes. It’s a really good learning curve.”
Juggling his status as one of the boys in the dressing-room and one of the coaching figureheads has also been a challenge. “I want to be seen in the dressing-room as one of the lads,” said Alexander. “The boys give me a bit of stick but that comes with the job and it’s all good fun. I get the respect from the boys when I’m doing my coaching and there’s a bit of banter flying around when I’ve got my training kit on and I’m one of the lads again. It’s a fine balance to get, when you’re one of the boys and when you want that respect because you are a member of the coaching staff.
“I’ve completed my B Licence now, which I needed. It’s just about getting experience of coaching day in and day out. The more you do it, the better you get at it. I try to keep sessions fresh and new for the boys because it’s easy to go stale and repeat the same drills over and over.”
The folders and pamphlets he is carrying are evidence of Alexander’s dedication to the job. “I do a lot of homework away from the training ground to try and look at other ideas,” he continued. “I look at what other goalie coaches are doing and speak to different people. I want as many ideas as I can and then bring them into my training. I think the boys are enjoying what I’m putting on for them. It’s not as old-school as it used to be.
“I’m wanting quality, not quantity, and the boys have responded really well. Everything I’ve asked Jack and Scott to do, they’ve been fantastic and it’s been a joy to train them. They’ve never moaned. They’ve just done what I’ve asked to a very high standard. That helps me enjoy being a coach.”
A similar standard of application is demanded on the field as Hearts try to secure the Championship title and automatic promotion. Last week brought an unexpected hiccup as Falkirk inflicted the first league defeat of Neilson’s eight-month tenure with a 3-2 win at Tynecastle. It also robbed Alexander of a goals-against record which was the envy of goalkeepers across Britain.
“I was well aware of that. I was gutted,” he admitted. “On Saturday night it was tough to take and on Sunday it was still hard but you’ve got to move on. We had only conceded ten goals in 20 league games, which was one of the best records in Britain. We’ve had a fantastic defensive record and it was something to be proud of. In one game, it’s just gone right out of the window. That’s disappointing from a defensive point of view but these things happen in football. Hopefully it will make us stronger.
“We had a chat about it. You try to take the positives out of a negative. Maybe it was the kick up the backside that we needed; a reality check for everyone. It was a wake-up call and it shows there’s still a lot of hard work to be done. We’re disappointed losing at home but it might spur us on to get going again. We can now concentrate on getting back on a run during the tough run-in.
“We aren’t too disheartened about it. We’ve done fantastically well to get to where we are. If somebody offered us this position at that start of the season come the end of January, we’d have snapped their arm off for it.”
Motivation certainly shouldn’t be a problem for Hearts in Clackmannanshire tomorrow. “I think all the boys are desperate to get to Saturday to put right a wrong,” said Alexander. “There’s been an extra spark in training and the boys want to show that the defeat was a one-off; a small blip. We’ve had such a high standard of performance that sometimes I think the fans and the public have been a wee bit spoiled by the number of goals and by how well we’ve played this season.”